- Type of process: Community Group Conference
- Conference Participants:
- Offender –Les (36)
- Victims- Sheryl and Tom (A married couple in their late 60s)
- 2 Facilitators
- 2 Community Members
- Police Officer
- Criminal Charges Pending: Reckless Endangerment
- Referring agent: Police Department
- Factual Synopsis: A thirty-five year old man accidentally discharged his gun in his house. The bullet went through his window and into the bedroom of his next door neighbor, missing his neighbor by a few feet and causing damage to the house and a family heirloom.
The week before Easter, Les was putting his guns away so that they would be safely out of reach when company came into town for the holiday. He stored away his riffles and then began the routine he uses to familiarize himself with his handgun. Les shared that this is something he does frequently so that he is comfortable using the gun and smooth and effective in his gestures. However, this time, Les made a mistake in the sequence and the gun fired. The bullet traveled out Les’ window and into his neighbor’s bedroom, whizzing through the air on the opposite side of the bed from where Sheryl was standing. Ending its trajectory, it lodged itself in the wall behind an antique mirror passed down from Sheryl’s great grandmother.
Sheryl normally stands on the left side of the bed while she folds the laundry. She does it the same way every time, but on this particular day, Sheryl stood on the right side of the bed. Looking back at this oddity, Sheryl says she knows there is someone looking out for her.
As soon as Les realized what had happened, he ran next door in panic, apologizing profusely to Tom and Sheryl, so relieved to see they were ok. Sheryl and Tom for their part said they were still in shock. What followed was a whirlwind of reporters arriving and police officers responding to a gun shot report, handcuffing Les and taking him to the Police Station.
The responding Police Officer later shared that Les was in a state of panic the whole time, in disbelief and terror about what he had done. The police department wasn’t sure what to do with the case. They didn’t want to send Les (who had no prior charges on his record) to jail for a mistake, but also wanted to communicate the gravity of offense and ensure that the harms were repaired to the greatest extent possible. One of the Commanders suggested that the case be referred to Restorative Justice. The referring officer shared in the conference that he wanted the case to be handled through Restorative Justice because, “when this is all said and done, they’ll still be next door neighbors.” Along with the physical and emotional harms, there was also a relationship in need of repair.
The restorative justice conference was an emotional one as both parties grasped the proximity to complete tragedy. One of the more surprising outcomes however, was how both Les and Sheryl spoke about the impact the incident had on their relationship as neighbors.
Sheryl shared that she hadn’t known what would happen after the police arrived, but she had seen on TV that in the lead up to a trial, the victim and offender should not be in contact. Therefore, for a while she asked Les not to talk to her and Tom. This created a strain between neighbors who before had always been friendly, sharing conversations outside their homes. Les shared that it was additionally hard for him because all he wanted to do during those days was to apologize and to check in to see how they were doing.
Through the Restorative Justice conference, Les, Sheryl and Tom all had the chance to share how they were impacted and be heard by each other. Sheryl shared at the end how grateful she was to have had the conversation, so that now they could hug and go back to being neighbors.
Sitting in the circle, what arose for me was a powerful contrast between how the traditional court system and Restorative Justice treat relationships after a wrong doing. The court system intentionally drives a further wedge by encouraging the offender to deny responsibility, by not letting the parties speak without legal counsel, by framing the aftermath as an experience of opposition between the two parties. Restorative Justice provides the opposite experience. The process encourages open dialogue, prioritizes repairing relationships, and utilizes mutual consensus in order to determine outcomes.
At the end of the conference, Sheryl and Les hugged and fell easily into conversation. Les will pay for the repairs to the house and the antique mirror. He will complete a gun safety course and will write a piece about what he learned from the experience to be published anonymously in the local newspaper. Those specific actions will help Sheryl and Tom feel that the harm was repaired, but perhaps more crucial to a return to normalcy is the ability to once again stop and chat in the driveway, or wave and holler hello from across the fence, the ability to be neighbors again.